The Cleveland Browns lost a tough season opener on Sunday, falling to the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18 at FirstEnergy Stadium. But even through the loss, the Browns showed a lot of positives that look to be building blocks for the season. One of the more impressive and encouraging areas of the Browns performance came from their defense. The Browns’ defense allowed just 14 points to the Steelers, with the other touchdown coming on special teams off a blocked punt.
Throughout the game the Browns defense stymied the usual high-powered Steelers offense, limiting Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense to just 290 total yards. Just to give everyone some reference, the Steelers were seventh in the league last season in total yards per game, averaging 372.6 total yards of offense on 2016. So, the Browns really did well in defending a typically potent offense.
Probably the biggest improvement for the Browns defense came against the run. Cleveland has been horrible over the past several years in slowing down the opposing team’s run game. Last season, the Browns was 31st in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up a putrid 142.7 rushing yards per game. So yes, even a pinch of improvement can look like a lot based on last year’s performance. But versus the Steelers, the Browns looked like a completely different unit, suffocating the run game to just 35 yards rushing. 15 yards of that came on the final drive by Le’Veon Bell. This performance was against one of the best running backs in the league and a rushing attack that averaged 110.0 yards per game last season, the 14th best mark in the league. It was a great performance for the Browns run defense.
What was the difference for the run defense? “It was just a mindset and focus,” said Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey about the run defense following the loss on Sunday. “[Defensive Coordinator] Coach [Gregg Williams] gave us great calls during the game. We just listened to his calls and did our jobs.” Linebacker Joe Schobert was also asked about the key to the improved run defense. “I think we are just being aggressive and having an attack mentality,” Schobert answered following the game. “A lot of film study. A lot of reading formations and getting ‘tips and tells’ from them. Everybody was locked in and ready to go.”
The biggest reasons for the improved run defense seemed to be the change to a Greg Williams defense and the improved individual performances of the defensive linemen. As the players mentioned, the team was attacking, with the entire defense swarming to the ball. Williams utilized everybody to help stop the run, including safeties and corners. He also disguised the defense well, with players moving around the field and hiding their intent on the play. It was tough for the blocker to know who was coming and who was dropping back.
But I think the biggest factor in the improvement of the run defense was the improved performances of individual players, especially on the defensive line. For much of the game, the defensive line did not give ground to Steeler blockers, and they allowed the linebackers and other defenders behind them to remain clean, for the most part, fly up field, and stop the run. There were also instances where the defensive line was pushing blockers back into the backfield, thwarting the run play immediately. The key to a good run defense is the defensive line and the Browns showed in run game that they might have one on their defense.
However not everything was peachy on the Browns defense on Sunday. Cleveland struggled mightily in trying to get to Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns notched just one sack on the day. According to profootballfocus.com, the defense was able to pressure Roethlisberger on just two of his 37 dropbacks. Two. Giving Roethlisberger a comfortable pocket with an immense amount time was recipe for disaster. The big 38-yard pass to receiver Antonio Brown was a great example of what could happen if a defense cannot get pressure on the quarterback. That is the biggest area of worry for the Browns defense going into Week 2. However, this area could be immensely improved with one addition, Myles Garrett.
“I really learned that we can stop the run,” said Garrett on Monday about what he observed from his defense’s performance versus Pittsburgh. “We can go out there and stand firm against anybody. We have to get after the passer a little bit more, and we have to get some more sacks and a little bit more disruption and pressure back there. I feel like I can help.” He was exactly right. The Browns run defense was really good, but the Browns struggled to rush the passer, which would have been an area Garrett would have made a huge impact on.
Had Garrett played versus the Steelers on Sunday, I (and WFNY’s Dave Sterling) believe the Browns would have won. Many people may think that is a lot to put on the young rookie, but that is how much respect I have for his game. The first thing he would have added to the defense would have been a consistent pass rushing threat that could get loose and make a big time sack to end a drive or possibly force a turnover. But, his impact is also on the opposing offense and his fellow defenders. With his consistent threat as a pass rusher, the Steelers would have had to account for him on every single play. That frees up other defenders to be one-on-one, which makes their job easier. The other defenders are then positively impacted and hopefully would have performed better. That is the impact Garrett would have had on the game. That 38-yard pass to Brown or numerous other plays could have not happened had Garrett been on the field.
The defense is aggressive with young talent flying around the field. The unit’s mentality seems to be improved under Greg Williams, showing more toughness, effort and athleticism. But, this is just one game. The run defense must back up its performance on Sunday with another good one against Baltimore. It will all go for naught if the Browns run defense returns to last year’s form. The pass rush must get better in order to be a more complete defense. Without Garrett, the other defenders on the Browns defense must step up and create their own pressure on the quarterback. Nevertheless, the Cleveland Browns defense showed a lot of improvement, but still has more room to get better, with the good likelihood it will when Garrett gets back.